The last line of defence has been a problem position for the Albiceleste in recent times and there is no margin for error against Nigeria on Tuesday.
The time for experiments is over. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli appears no nearer to knowing his best line-up or indeed his favoured formation, but now he has to decide and he has to get it right.
After a disaappointing draw against Iceland and a disastrous defeat to Croatia, the Albiceleste are on the verge of elimination from the World Cup without even advancing to the knockout stages. On Tuesday, however, they have one last chance.
Nigeria’s win over Iceland on Friday gave Sampaoli’s side a stay of execution and ever since, the players and coaching staff have been working on the game against the Super Eagles.
All sorts of reports have been emanating from the Argentina camp since then , with some speculation claiming that the players – and not Sampaoli – will select the team for Tuesday’s must-win match in Saint Petersburg.
While those claims are far-fetched, it is true that the players have asked Sampaoli to ditch the three-man defence he used against Croatia. In addition, several senior stars – such as Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega – look likely to feature on Tuesday, given the game’s great importance.
And in goal, Sampaoli has another big call to make. So far, he has picked Chelsea’s Willy Caballero in both matches, but the former Malaga and Manchester City man looks unlikely to keep his place after his horrendous mistake against Croatia gifted Ante Rebic the chance to make it 1-0.
It ended 3-0 to the Croats in Nizhny Novgorod and down in the press room, the first question to Sampaoli was a prickly one. “Coach, there are 40 million Argentines who hold you responsible for playing Caballero. Why didn’t you wait for [Sergio] Romero?” he was asked.
Although not first choice most of the time at Sampdoria, Monaco or Manchester United in the past six seasons, Romero has been Argentina’s no. 1 in that time and has 94 caps for his country. However, he was cut from the squad in late May after picking up an injury.
That brought a furious attack from the player’s wife on social media. “It’s an injury, but he is not broken,” she wrote after the announcement he was being left at home, on May 23. “He could be ready to play in two weeks.” And she added that “particular interests” had been put before the national team, claiming the decision had been personal.
With Romero ruled out, in came Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, who had been excluded from the original list. And after that, his father had posted an incendiary message on social media along with a caricature of Sampaoli, depicting the Argentina coach as a puppet with the names of television stations and media organisations tatooed on his arms.
In the meantime, many fans and sectors of the media have called for River Plate’s exciting young goalkeeper Franco Armani to be given a chance, some noting that the two times Argentina have won the World Cup (in 1978 and 1986), it had been with an arquero from the Millonarios in their team (Ubaldo Fillol and Nery Pumpido).
Armani was due to be given his chance in Argentina’s final friendly ahead of the World Cup, against Israel in Jerusalem, but that
match was cancelled due to political pressures on the players and threats to Lionel Messi, among others. So Armani never did get his opportunity.
Caballero was therefore given the nod, despite making mistakes in the 6-1 friendly loss to Spain in March and also against Italy days earlier. At fault again for Iceland’s goal in their World Cup opener, his scuffed pass against Croatia proved to the moment it all went wrong for Argentina in that match.
After the game, a WhatsApp audio message from Diego Simeone to his Atletico assistant German Burgos emerged and in it, he questioned the decision to pick Cabellero.
“The goalkeeper,” he said. “He had done it already, German! He did it against Spain, against Italy that the ball went just wide near the post, and I told you it was a pity he didn’t concede so they’d realise that if you screw it in the World Cup, it’s a goal.”
Ultimately, that is exactly what happened and the goalkeeper’s role has become a problem position once again for Argentina, as in previous tournaments over the years when changes have taken place either prior to or during the competition itself.
This time, Armani looks set to be the one to start against Nigeria, that despite the fact he has yet to play a single match for his country. If so, it will be a baptism of fire, but his inclusion may yet help Argentina out of the hole in which they find themselves at this World Cup.
And he surely cannot be any worse than Caballero – whose confidence must now be shot to pieces – has been in recent games.